World Bulletin / News Desk
The leaders of Serbia's ex-Yugoslav neighbours on Monday boycotted from the ceremonial inauguration of nationalist President Tomislav Nikolic who denied Serb genocide during the wars of the 1990s.
Last month's surprise election of Nikolic, long depicted in the West as the ideological heir to late Serb war crimes convict Slobodan Milosevic, sent a chill through a region still coming to terms with the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in which over 125,000 people died.
Montenegro's Filip Vujanovic was the only president from the region to attend a reception in Belgrade marking the start of Nikolic's five-year term.
The leaders of the ex-Yugoslav republics Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Slovenia stayed away, as did the Albanian president.
Several had cited denials by Nikolic since his election three weeks ago. He denied the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica constituted genocide and said the Croatian border town of Vukovar, reduced to rubble during a three-month siege by Serb forces in 1991, "was a Serb town".
The EU is weighing up whether to open membership talks with the country of 7.3 million people. It has made clear that Nikolic is on probation, and condemned his comment on Srebrenica, the worst mass killing in Europe since World War Two.
"Words and deeds will be vital to moving us forward," EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule told the reception.
"I have not come to analyse this or that word, but I have come with encouragement for the new Serbian president and government to deliver in a concrete way the promotion and strengthening of regional cooperation and reconciliation," Fule told a news conference earlier in the day with Nikolic.
A former cemetery manager known by the nickname "Gravedigger", the 60-year-old president says he now shares the goal of taking Serbia into the EU.
He was last in government in alliance with Milosevic when NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 to halt the killing and expulsion of Kosovo Albanians by Serb forces fighting a two-year counter-insurgency war.
He pledged to pursue a policy of "peace, stability and cooperation" in the region.
Nikolic's influence on policy could yet be limited if his defeated rival, liberal Boris Tadic, manages to take the more powerful post of prime minister at the helm of a renewed pro-reform coalition government that would lock out Nikolic's Serbian Progressive Party.
Serbia needs a new government that will commit itself to rein in debt and renegotiate a loan deal with the International Monetary Fund to halt the slide of the dinar currency and stave off recession.
But there is little sign a coalition deal is imminent. Parties have until September to agree, or go to new elections.